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HR Issues in a Sea of Massive Change

How Can I Think of HR At a Time Like This!

HR Issues in a Sea of Massive Change

April 9th, 2020

By Scott Henderson

The immense scale of change triggered by the Covid19 crisis has thrown small businesses and organizations into a vortex of complex, fast-moving, very challenging situations. It is my observation that two big shifts are happening right now:

  1. The business/financial/investment world is shifting from ‘Financial Growth’ to ‘Protecting Assets & Conserving Value’ (PA & CV)

  2. Companies and organizations must take direct action to protect those assets- in particular, their Human Resource Assets (HR Assets)

Tom Peters in his book ‘In Search of Excellence’ introduces the concept of ‘Management By Walking Around’. The key part of Mr. Peters's approach is about bosses/ decision-makers being very active in conducting regular direct contact with many parts of their organization to support a steady flow of up-to-date information. Given the COVID crisis, it is my view that decision-makers use the philosophies of both PA & CV and MBWA to guide their actions to support their HR Assets specifically as well as for the collective assets in the organization as a whole.

Main ArticlePart 1.

Our Current RealityI started planning out this blog article to use key points from Tom Peters's book ‘In Search Of Excellence’. Specifically, building on one of the principles in his book- the practice of ‘Management by Walking Around’(MBWA). But then COVID 19 came to live in our world. And our world has changed. By my count, 3 massive key abilities of our society- of our country- have come to a virtual full stop.

  1. The ability of companies/ organizations/governments to conduct business.

  2. The ability of people to earn income.

  3. The ability to move about to carry out our lives.

Number 3 is really primary for the first two to execute. And of course, the above loss of abilities is really a secondary shock from the BIG issue- how to protect us and our families from a New and Dangerous illness. The ensuing cascade of change triggered by the very important new rules of social distancing/ social separation/ social isolation has hit hard for everyone, and every company, in nearly every sector, across all regions of the nation. Many companies are still able to be in operation albeit greatly altered. But many organizations, in many sectors, have been forced to shut down. They are not on the ‘essential service’ list and for now, their ability to operate has been extinguished.

This is happening... All. At. once a fast sports car does 0 to 60 in 5 seconds, our country collectively did the opposite in 2 seconds flat. Politicians and boards of health have stated we may be in the practice of ‘social isolation’ and combating the illness well into the summer! But the shock to companies and the disruption to business operations could be undermined for far longer. It may well be that there is already more disruption, more companies digging into reserves and more economic pain across more sectors than in the 2008 financial ‘Great Recession”.

Part II ‘ The Guts of It’ So what does ‘MBWA’ have to do with this? The principle of ‘MBWA’ is for managers/owners/decision-makers to get out of their ‘office’. The office is, of course, the euphemism representing the decision-makers' regular routines, regular behaviors. The point is to get real-time information by directly interacting with their staff, connect with teams, to see the work being done, to take the measure of the operations. As much as possible, actually, see the company running.

Also equally important- the ‘boss’ is seen to be doing this by the staff to be the one who is reaching out. It was Tom Peters's contention that MBWA was an act of Leadership, an action that staff teams paid attention to. For the workforce, it was demonstrated by key decision-makers of engagement or connection with the company- both in its (important) formal parts, as represented in the regular structured reporting procedures but also seeing the company at the levels where the large portions of the organization's work are done.

From an information gathering angle, an MBWA approach is a complementary part of existing reporting procedures. Reporting processes largely focus on what has happened in the past for the company while concurrently; info gathered in an MBWA adds by framing what the company's potential is- understanding how quickly the company can take advantage of new opportunities. But... what does ‘MBWA’ have to do with our current Reality? To be clear, the ‘Management by Walking Around’ certainly does not exactly fit with the mandated current practice of ‘social distancing’. The part of the principle that is applicable is the ‘reaching out/connecting/ gathering information’ from all parts of the organization. At first, the thought was to extend out the concept of MBWA to fit with companies as they shift their workforce to various models of ‘remote work’: work from home, virtual office, virtual teams, virtual group meetings, etc.

But that approach is really missing the ‘bigger picture’ of what is going on. For many small businesses, they are trying to answer the question:-Do I still have a business? -Will the company be able to sell its product or service in the future?-When things ‘turn round’, will there still be a market to sell into? And of course, many owners/ managers/ ‘key persons’ do not have answers- the questions above have too many forces at play to be able to predict much of anything. But still- What actions do companies need to take?

Part III ‘Protect Assets & Conserve Value’ In the past weeks, the investment/ finance world has seen the value of nearly all types of asset classes collapse: Stock Markets & share prices of public companies, bond prices, question marks around real estate. Predictability and assumptions in place in January were gone by the end of February. Fear and confusion are the current reality now. In the investment & finance world, when fear and confusion are happening the mantra changes from ‘pursue financial growth ‘ to ‘ protecting assets & conserving value’(PA & CV).

Companies and individuals will, where possible, protect asset value or have tried to sell assets to convert gains into cash and then park their proceeds someplace safe. For small businesses and organizations, ‘protecting assets and conserving value’ is a mantra to be adopted.

A company in the PA & CV mode would be launching a communication plan to communicate to all stakeholder groups connected to the organization on a very regular basis. These would be the Customers, suppliers, contractors, regulators, investors, community partners, the industry associations. The mission is to find out what is happening in their respective worlds- are their customers still going; can they still service the contracts they have with your company; do they still have a labor force; are your customers still able to complete their contracts with you; can they still pay.

Example: an acquaintance runs a construction company- because of the crisis he has shut down his operation but many of his projects are funded by international clients. He expects many of those clients or their investors to reprioritize and pull back their funds (i.e. because of currency controls or needing to divert resources into other projects etc.). To minimize expenses he will have stopped orders for supplies & materials for the projects. He will have been staying in touch with his crews during the shutdown but also with his suppliers, industry contacts and others.

This PA&CV approach fits well into the MBWA model. Together, the concepts are about reaching out to as many entities linked to the organization to reinforce relationships, get good information, note trends, competitor & customer behaviors and determine the likely forces affecting markets. The goal with the above approach is to answer 2 questions:-What is happening with the stakeholders in the orbit of my company?-What is happening in the larger picture; what are events or forces coming my way that I need to know about. One key asset of an organization still to be mentioned is the organizations ‘HR Assets’- the company's workforce & staff teams. And the skillsets and abilities they provide to do the work of the company. The HR Assets, along with relations to customers, suppliers, regulators, contractors, etc. -all are in the category of assets to be ‘protected and conserved’.The MBWA principle can give direction on what specifically should company leaders do in regards to the ‘HR Assets’:

  • Reaching out to employees (reaching out as early as possible) for two reasons:

  • To gain information about what is happening for the employees, their families, the people they are responsible for. What are the staff seeing and experiencing?

  • To provide information to them; share with your staff what you know about the company; will it continue operation; and their jobs, are they laid off?; who else is laid off; what will happen for employee benefits; if operations are continuing what plans are in place to determine how work of the company will continue; will their jobs change; what is the organizational structure etc. This is sending the signal to the HR Assets of what they can expect from the company( frequency of communication, who is reporting, how questions/ issues will be answered etc.)

The goal at this stage is also two-fold:

  • To send the signal that the company is still there, that the leadership is still present, that information will be provided and transparency will be maintained.

  • As much as possible, creating the sense of keeping the staff close, involved and engaged.

In the information exchange between staff and organization there would be two channels:

  1. The formal channel dealing with the company, staff roles, duties, work teams, projects, etc

  2. The other channel is the informal information exchange- a kind of ‘First Aid’ for your HR Assets: regular exchange about the current situation for the staff, what is changing, what are new challenges, can the company offer solutions, resources, etc.

Your staff group is one of the keys committed assets that will allow the company to rebuild or restart- whatever form that may be.

Conclusion The COVID pandemic has unleashed massive levels of changes for citizens, families, and businesses.PA & CV and MBWA are two concepts brought together to present a model of guidance for action to be taken by owners and decision-makers, especially of small businesses, to protect their organizations as a whole and HR Assets in particular. There are still bumpy times ahead

Scott Henderson

HR Consultant, AzureHR

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